- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 24, 2002

The prime minister of Bulgaria, a NATO aspirant whose chances have been boosted by the war on terrorism, told President Bush yesterday that he feared an anti-Western backlash if his nation fails to win admission to the alliance.

Simeon Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, the first ex-monarch in the world to hold an elective office, also presented to Mr. Bush an action plan of economic and military reforms his government intends to implement to secure an invitation at NATO's upcoming summit in Prague.

"We are working hard and are fully committed to becoming a NATO member," Mr. Saxe-Coburg told reporters during his four-day official visit to Washington. "We are a country of peace with all its neighbors that has contributed to stability in Southeast Europe."

He said Bulgaria acted as a de-facto member of the alliance during its 1999 war against Serbia over Kosovo and especially in the anti-terrorist campaign. During both conflicts, the Balkan country opened its airspace to NATO aircraft. Since the operation in Afghanistan began last fall, U.S. planes have been using a Bulgarian air base on the Black Sea coast.

The prime minister said about 70 percent of his people favor NATO membership, the largest approval rating the alliance has in the nine applicant nations.

But he warned of a "big disappointment" if Bulgaria's candidacy is rejected that "could turn into a nationalistic backlash" and damage his government's efforts to Westernize and democratize the nation of 8.5 million.

"Some may even say that our relationship with the East is more reasonable, as in the old days of communism," he said, referring to Bulgaria's 45-year loyalty to the former Soviet Union.

The Western alliance is poised to take in as many as seven new members in Prague. The Bush administration has said it is committed to a large expansion, from the Baltic to the Black Sea, although it has refrained from naming specific candidates.

But at a meeting of the applicants in Bucharest, the Romanian capital, last month, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage gave the first public boost to Bulgaria and Romania.

Mr. Saxe-Coburg said yesterday either of those countries alone "can't serve the purpose of closing NATO's southeast flank." He noted that Greece and Turkey have been very supportive of Bulgaria's and Romania's bids because they would feel "less isolated" once the two former communist countries become members.

In addition to bringing security and stability, he said NATO membership would considerably increase foreign investment in Bulgaria, as happened in Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic after they were invited in 1997 and especially after they joined two years later.

Bulgaria received a positive assessment of its determination to fulfill NATO's recommendations, which was formally handed to the foreign and defense ministers at the alliance's Brussels headquarters yesterday.

Mr. Saxe-Coburg, the child-king whom Bulgaria's communists expelled in 1946 at age 9, returned to his country's political life a year ago and became prime minister in July after his newly formed party won a general election.

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